MOSCOW — In the wake of the U.S. assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, as the White House has sought to justify its decision and avert another war in the Middle East, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been busy flaunting his newfound status as regional arbiter.
On Jan. 7, just days after the airstrike that killed the powerful Iranian officer, Putin flew to Damascus, Syria, to meet with his counterpart, Bashar Assad. More than four years ago, Russian jets first entered the Syrian civil war and decisively swung the conflict in the embattled Syrian president’s favor. It was seen at the time as a major rebuke of U.S. policy as well as a foreign policy coup for Moscow. Both assessments held up.
Following his trip to Damascus, Putin swung through Turkey to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After initially clashing with Erdogan over Syria, Putin has managed to forge close ties with his Turkish counterpart and leverage Ankara’s tensions with Washington to subvert American policy, further Russian goals and undermine NATO cohesion with arms sales to Turkey.
And to top it all off, German Chancellor Angela Merkel flew to Moscow on Jan. 11 to discuss the situation between the U.S. and Iran.
Putin’s movements since U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the airstrike on Soleimani have underscored one of the most consequential trends driving events in the Middle East: Russia’s star is rising as U.S. standing in the region is falling.
Putin has made significant gains on the world stage through the decisive use of limited resources and through U.S. blunder or disengagement.
At first glance, the situation between the U.S. and Iran would seem to provide Putin with similar opportunities to unseat Washington as Iraq’s preferred partner. The Trump administration killed Soleimani while the general was on a trip to Iraq. In response, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution asking the U.S. military to vacate Iraqi bases used by the American military in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria. It is unclear whether a withdrawal will happen, but U.S.-Iraqi relations are so far the major casualty in Trump’s larger spat with Iran.
But some analysts doubt whether this void, were it left open by the U.S., is one that Russia could fill.
“I am skeptical that we would rush into Iraq,” Vladimir Frolov, an independent Russian foreign affairs analyst, told Defense News. “At least not a Syria-style operation, or even as a security provider. This would seriously strain the military. I think we would be very open to other forms of assistance such as arms sales, trainers and intelligence sharing. But deploying the Air Force? No.”
To be sure, Russia is always looking to expand arms sales — a tried and true method of geopolitical influence — as well as oil and gas contracts. But it already has a presence in Iraq on both fronts, and it’s unclear that a deeper commitment and level of involvement in Iraq would be required for expanding access to those markets.
One of Russia’s most noteworthy and politically significant arms exports are anti-aircraft and air defense systems. Iraq has already found itself in the crosshairs of U.S. and Iranian missile and rocket strikes, and predictably Russian state media is making noise about a potential sale to Iraq of S-400 air defense systems, a weapon at the heart of U.S.-Turkish tension.
However, there has been no official indication of an S-400 sale to Iraq.
Even before the U.S. assassinated Soleimani on Iraqi soil, Iran held major sway over the country. Russia is an Iranian partner in the Middle East and has never had real problems getting what it wanted from the Iraqi government, said Michael Kofman, head of the Russia program at CNA, a think tank in Virginia.
“A decline of U.S. influence is beneficial to other external actors in the Middle East, but of little real benefit to Russia,” Kofman said. “Most countries are not interested in America’s role in the Middle East and hardly want to take away the job of being security provider for a region in a near-constant state of turmoil.”
More to the point, there is just no geopolitical rationale for fully replacing the U.S. in Iraq.
“The Middle East just isn’t that important anymore,” Kofman asserted, “and the other major powers still prefer the United States manages as much of it as possible, while they are able to selectively engage and attain their interests [at] relatively minimal costs.”
Meanwhile, the mood in Moscow is showing signs of shifting away from the bravado and adventurism that have characterized Russian foreign policy in recent years. As 2024 looms closer, the Russian political elite will be increasingly focused on the question of Putin’s succession; his time as president will reach a constitutional limit in four years.
Putin announced Jan. 15 major reforms to the Russian government that, if adopted, will see some presidential powers shifted to parliament and the formation of a new state advisory council. The proposal saw the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his cabinet of ministers, a move presented as a response to the coming changes rather than coordinated play.
The moves suggest Putin is embarking on the titanic project of succession in Russia, or at the very least a succession in title. Some see the re-engineering of Russia’s system of government as a means of Putin holding onto power while maintaining some kind of democratic legal decorum. Either way, domestic affairs will likely be more of a priority than in recent years.
The Russian public, too, has a role to play in this shift. The Kremlin is finding it harder to justify bold foreign policy action as the national economy continues to stagnate and public discontent rises.
“There is some sense of skepticism now within the Russian foreign policy community toward rushing to fill every hole vacated by the U.S.,” Frolov said. “This is no longer that popular domestically, and people are starting to ask questions about what we are doing [abroad].”
Matthew Bodner covered Russian affairs for Defense News.